2016 GOP Debates And The Wages Of “Liberal Media” Conspiracism

The Republican National Committee voted this morning to ban NBC News and CNN from hosting GOP primary debates in 2016. On paper, the vote was to protest plans by NBC and CNN to produce, respectively, a miniseries and a documentary on Hillary Clinton. But there's a whole lot more undergirding this move to exclude these outlets from the Republican debates. The long-standing animus toward the “liberal media” among conservatives has morphed into outright paranoia, and it came to a head during the 2012 campaign when George Stephanopoulos asked a debate question about contraception.

Here's what happened. Rick Santorum talked about contraception a lot during his 2012 presidential campaign. He railed against “the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea” in an October 2011 interview with an evangelical blog. He told NBC's Today on December 29 that contraception “leads to lot of sexually transmitted diseases, it leads to a lot of unplanned pregnancies.” On January 2, 2012, just a few days before participating in a Republican debate co-hosted by ABC News, Santorum was asked by then-ABC reporter Jake Tapper about his belief that states should be able to ban contraception. “The state has a right to do that, I have never questioned that the state has a right to do that,” Santorum said.

Then, at the ABC/Yahoo News debate on January 7, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Mitt Romney if he shared Santorum's belief “that states have the right to ban contraception.” Romney responded: “George, this is an unusual topic that you're raising. States have a right to ban contraception? I can't imagine a state banning contraception.” Shortly afterward, all hell broke loose.

From all corners of the conservative media came accusations that George Stephanopoulos, in asking about contraception, had "coordinated" with Team Obama to lure the Republican candidates into some sort of trap on birth control. Much of the speculation was driven by Dick Morris, which should have been a pretty big red flag in terms of reliability. The theory rested on the assumption that the contraception issue just came out of nowhere, which, of course, is not true -- Santorum was asked about it just five days before the debate by one of Stephanopoulos' colleagues. 

But that falsehood coupled with Stephanopoulos' work in the Clinton White House were enough to convict, and his “collusion” with Democrats became an established fact in the conservative history of the 2012 campaign. Earlier this month, Sen. Rand Paul brought up the Stephanopoulos incident on Geraldo Rivera's radio program. “Stephanopoulos asked an obscure question about Griswold and birth control when no Republicans were bringing up anything about trying to put limits on birth control,” Paul said. “You wonder whether there was a concerted action between a former Democrat [sic] operative and, basically, the president's campaign.”

Radio host Laura Ingraham asked Stephanopoulos directly about the question and the allegation that he colluded with the Obama campaign and he, obviously, denied it, bringing up Tapper's contraception question to Santorum. “I don't believe Santorum was campaigning on that,” Ingraham responded. National Review's John Fund wrote a piece just today arguing that the GOP should “take back” the debates from the media, citing Stephanopoulos' question. Stephanopoulos “was obviously laying the groundwork for the Democrats' faux 'war on women' campaign theme by asking the Republican candidates, completely out of the blue, about contraceptives,” writes an Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist.

Again, there's nothing to indicate that Stephanopoulos acted in concert with Democrats. But conservatives have been conditioned for so long to reflexively mistrust and assume the worst of the “liberal media” that to them it seems at least plausible that this actually happened. And when they all start speculating in unison it starts to sound like the truth. That's how silliness like this festers to the point that it starts to express itself at the highest levels of the Republican Party.